JP EXCUSES HERSELF FROM PROTEST CASE
Postpones trial of five who occupied MPP's office
Friday, July 21, 2000 The Hamilton Spectator/A9
By JOHN BURMAN The Hamilton Spectator
A Hamilton Justice of the Peace has excused herself from the trespassing trial of five social activists following their bid to be heard in provincial offences court yesterday.
She also sent a police officer after a spectator who swore out loud when she adjourned the case to November.
Justice Wendy Casey said she was removing herself from the case in order to eliminate any perception of unfairness.
Casey remanded the case until Nov. 27 after members of Hamilton Action for Social Change told her they were prepared to admit the facts against them in order to explain why they occupied Stoney Creek MPP Brad Clark's office April 3 in a non-violent protest against Ontario welfare laws.
Andrew Loucks, Randy Kay, Wendell Fields and Scott Neigh of the Hamilton Group and Matthew Behrens of Toronto Action for Social Change were charged with failing to leave a premise after they occupied Clark's King Street East office in Stoney Creek for 90 minutes. Police carried one of the protesters from the office.
The group is opposed to the provincial government's policy of zero tolerance on welfare fraud, which went into effect April 1 and denies benefits to anyone convicted of welfare fraud.
"We will agree with the facts of the case," Fields [sic] told the court. "It is a very simple case. We are willing to concede we were there and explain."
Casey told the five accused that would amount to a guilty plea. When she questioned their understanding of such an act, Fields started to leave and was called back.
A moment later, a spectator jumped up and shouted, then stormed out of the courtroom. A police officer brought him back.
Members of the group told Casey they understood the implications of agreeing to the Crown's facts in the case.
Some of the accused are quite familiar with public protests and their consequences.
Perhaps the most colourful is Behrens. He's been known to dress up as the Easter Bunny or Santa's Elf No. 2. He has taken canned food from the shelves of a downtown Toronto Loblaw's store and dumped it in the store's food bank bin to protest the company's political donations to Premier Mike Harris's Tories. He also participated in an attempt to perform a citizen's arrest on former United States secretary of state Henry Kissenger when he was in Toronto in May of last year.
Fields, Kay and Loucks were involved with the 1999 Father's Day Coalition for Peace protest at the Hamilton Airshow. Fields has in the past sought election as Hamilton mayor and as an MPP in the Hamilton West riding. He, along with Behrens and Kay, was also involved in a sit-in at Heritage Minister Sheila Copps' Hamilton office in February 1998.
As soon as she set the Nov. 27 date for trial, Casey excused herself from the trial and told the court clerk to make sure her wishes were noted on that day's trial list.
Once the trial date was settled, Casey called Andrew Sedgley to the front of the bench and asked him what he was doing shouting epithets at the court. Sedgley--who apparently is not a member of Action for Social Change in either Hamilton or Toronto, told the court he made an immature response and apologized. Casey accepted his apology.
Scott Neigh, spokesperson for Hamilton Action for Social Change, said in an interview outside the court that the group is a loose-knit organization with about 15 regular members. But it has had between 50 and 60 people out to participate in various demonstrations. Neigh, a freelance writer and broadcaster, said the membership consists of a mix of people who believe in social justice. Most members are between 20 and 50 years old. Neigh also said the group is not affiliated with Toronto Action for Social Change "but we have been known to cooperate in the past." After the sit-in at Clark's Stoney Creek office, Wey Robinson, a member of Hamilton Action for Social Change, said the group wished to protest Ontario welfare policies because of a lifetime benefit ban on anyone who's been convicted of welfare fraud "is immoral and unjust."
The group believes that there aren't enough welfare recipients who commit fraud to justify such a draconian policy, and that it will cost more money to care for people forced off welfare.
The group believes the policy violates the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and will hurt children, even though the government says portions of benefits which would have been paid to support the children of banned recipients will continue.
LOFTY POLITICAL DEFENCE FELL FLAT
Hamilton Spectator, December 7, 2000.
Five social activists who occupied the constituency office of Stoney Creek MPP Brad Clark last spring to protest changes in provincial welfare regulations were all fined $300 Monday in provincial offences court.
Andrew Loucks, Randy Kay, Wendell Fields, Scott Neigh and Matthew Behrens were found guilty of trespassing by justice of the peace Donald Stevely.
In a trial that saw one JP excuse herself from hearing the case, they all admitted the trespass but challenged whether it constituted a punishable offence. Conducting their own defence they cited everything from the Nuremberg trials to the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights as justification for their actions, arguing a democratic society should tolerate, not penalize, such actions.
In the end Stevely was buying none of it. "You are not making any protest that will be heard," he told the five men, "you're just blowing in the wind and causing a problem."
In his submission on sentencing, Behrens told the court "just because the law's the law, doesn't mean that sometimes there can't be citizen intervention to uphold higher international laws and international standards. We'll probably be seeing a lot of you again in this court because we can't simply be deterred by a fine or the threat of punishment."
In imposing the $300 fine, Stevely asked each if they required time to pay, four said they didn't intend to pay--Kay said he would go to jail before paying the fine. The fifth, Fields, asked for 10 years.
Stevely ignored their remarks and made no mention of the consequences of not paying the fine.
Chances of any of them going to jail are slim. Generally, unpaid fines for provincial offences other than the Highway Traffic Act, are turned over [to] a collection agency after 30 days.
The men were charged last April after police were called to Clark's King Street East office to disperse a group protesting the government's "zero tolerance policy on welfare fraud. Court was told they were arrested only after they refused to leave the office. Two had to be carried out by police.
In their defence, they argued they were merely citizens obliged to obey international law.
Stevely, although generally lenient in allowing political overtones to colour the defence, rejected it all. "This is about trespassing and leaving a premise," he said. "Pure and simple."